The Reg Smartphone Roundup – The Verdict Is In

Symbian, Microsoft or er,... none of the above?

Who's going to win the smartphone wars? Moore's law suggests that computers would merge with phones sooner or later, and there are now three clear choices for manufacturers and users. We've had a look at the first examples of each.

The clear favourite is the big phone companies' own platform of choice - Symbian, which was first out of the blocks and enjoys the support of the biggest European and Japanese manufacturers. Microsoft CE-based phones are finally starting to ship, and we're seeing the third evolutionary option appear with the Motorola Accompli 008 using an in-house proprietary phone OS and relying on Java as the bait for developers. The latter category, the cheap and cheerful approach, is as you'd expect by far the most popular so far. We've seen several of these so far, mostly for the Japanese market.

Of course it would be grossly unfair to handicap the contestants on the basis of the first three devices we've reviewed over the past couple of weeks - the Nokia 9210, the Motorola Accompli 008, and the Mitsubishi Trium Mondo. But then it would be pretty crazy not to take note, as the merits and disadvantages of each platform are apparent in these devices.

And all shall have prizes

Before going into detail, some overall impressions. This probably sounds woolly headed, but they're actually all winners to some degree. Even the Trium's pokey screen and sluggish performance is redeemed by its functionality as a phone. When it works, that is.

What we really mean is this: after some time with the Motorola and the Nokia communicators, you don't really want to go back to using two boxes, a PDA and a phone. Although in each case, there's a significant loss of functionality:- on the 9210 we lost access to a ton of software we depend on (Street Planner) and a keyboard we could touch type on. Palm users will probably have their own lists. However simply having integrated communication outweighs the disadvantages, and what good is a computer if it can't communicate? There was a time when the earliest cars were drawn by horses, and we suspect that future computer users may look back on the Newton/Palm era of unconnected PDAs with similar bewilderment.

We liked the Accompli's trade off between size and functionality. It's a fine phone, a decent mail client provided your mail is plain text and arrives sans attachments, and easily the most reliable of the three communicators we looked at. Nokia has the richest functionality, and the most potential. It feels like running a subnotebook OS, and much effort has been made to preserve compatibility with office file formats. The Mondo falls between the two. It proved neither reliable nor compact: being the bulkiest of the three. Its mass is similar to the 9210, but it doesn't slip into a narrow jacket pocket. Indeed after a few days, we got pretty used to the 9210's bulk.

The message is the medium

But these are all communicators, and on the basis of the messaging facility that Symbian's lead is justified. It's good. How good?

The rock writer Nick Kent tells a story of Paul McCartney, at around the time of the Revolver lp, driving up the pathway to Brian Wilson's house late at night. As he approaches, from behind the sound of the wind chimes, comes the sound of the Wilson playing and replaying the Beach Boys forthcoming single, which is 'God Only Knows'. At that moment Macca, who's at the height of his talents and simply sweats great tunes, is struck by the terrible thought that he'll never write anything quite as exquisite, so goddam eternally perfect, and so turns the car round and drives back without knocking.

Apocryphal or not, anyone who fancies themselves as producing a personal computer that might possibly, now and again, do some messaging ought to be struck by similar feelings of mortality - as the Symbian messaging software is of the same order of perfection. This doesn't just integrate the contacts book seamlessly with the message (fax, SMS, email) but makes the process completely painless and fluid. A similar attention to detail is evident in the Telephone application, and accounts for why we spent so much time with the device open, using the Speakerphone, essentially making it a new category of device. That we didn't expect at all.

The 9210's messaging is why the 9210 remains a usable device despite its limitations: early bugs and a lack of memory. It's gold plated quality software, and it's a joy to use a machine so orientated around user's real-world needs.

Contrast this with the Mitsubishi's messaging centre. To send a text message with the Trium, you do this:- find the menu at the bottom of screen, track along to the third option, which is 'Tools';then locate 'Services', and if you've configured it, click on 'SMS'.

The Nokia phone has been designed for people who use text regularly, while the Trium makes sending something as fundamental as a text message feel like an unsupported optional extra. The contrast between the Symbian and the Microsoft couldn't be greater. For all their hiring and R&D, Redmond is still employing designers who've never used a mobile phone.

And what can explain the cryptic Trium error messages? The first time we tried to send an SMS message the machine crashed, requiring a hard reset. The second (and subsequent) attempts produced an enormous dialog box, covering most of the screen, with the simple message: 'Nothing Beyond'

Clearly someone on the Windows CE team is a Samuel Beckett fan, as this must surely be his great lost work, and it raises the prospect of Billie Whitelaw performing a monologue of CE error messages: a natural complement to the Text Message Theatre that TV Go Home dreamt up a while ago.

Small is beautiful

By contrast, the PDA functionality of the Accompli 008 isn't going to win any prizes, and it too needs serious work on the UI, although its prospects would improve simply by reducing the screen font. The main limitation of proprietary closed OSes is that the Java MIDP platform feels like an optional extra. It's hard to imagine Street Planner running as a MIDP applet. But there's clearly a huge market for people who want basic data on their communicator, and devices like the Accompli ought to win out on price.

Nokia has said it expects to be shipping 40 per cent of its phones based on the Symbian OS in three years. As the biggest handset manufacturer, that gives the platform enormous momentum. Of course that leaves sixty per cent of its shipments running the proprietary Nokia OS NOS, and phones using that will be far more capable than they are now. And if, or more likely when the recession hits, a slowdown could steer corporate spending towards the cheap and cheerful option.

Increasingly the battle looks like one between Symbian platform and the cheaper home-grown alternatives running Java, rather than one between Symbian and Microsoft. Indeed, it's hard to see what Microsoft can do with its phone platform right now, as its strategy of hiring lots of good people isn't working. As Brad Silverberg pointed out in his 'pissy emails from billg' memo, creative work in Redmond is often compromised by the needs of existing business units. What might give its phone business some hope is a spin-off along the lines of Microsoft's Xbox games console. That would free it from using the Stinger UI, and quite possibly CE altogether. ®

Other Stories in our Smartphone Roundup

Review: Nokia 9210
Review: Motorola Accompli 008
Review: Mitsubishi Trium Mondo
Preview: Stinger